GIL SCOTT-HERON & SADE / “What’s New Mixtape”
As we get older.. (or should I be less diplomatic and give voice to the rawness of the situation?) …as we get “old”—meaning as we have less days in front of us than years behind us, as we look at ourselves, what we have done and not done, what we wish we could undo, what we still hope we can do, as all of that descends like a curtain on the last act of the play that is our lives, if we are an artist, what do we do with that jumble of emotions and experiences?
* * *
At 51 Sade looks amazingly well-kept—oh, what a loaded term “well kept” is, as though we were talking about a pet or a painting or a rare bottle of wine. Sade has taken good care of herself, physically, as any current photograph will attest.
Gil looks like death on a stick. (Kalamu don’t be so mean—well, I’m only saying what a lot of us are thinking as we recoil from the photos that look like poster prints for this is your body after drugs.)
They both have new albums. There is a weariness in both their voices. Of course, no one can remain youthful all their life. Tinkerbell and Peter Pan are fairy tales. In the real world we all grow old. I should rephrase that, in today’s world if we are lucky, we grow old.
What does it cost us to get old? How much of our soul do we have to barter, what burdens must our bodies bear? There’s nothing on the new Sade that sounds even remotely happy like the old Sade. And Gil, well, his once dulcet baritone is now as chilling as listening to the low snarl of a wolf warning you to stay away.
I like Gil’s album. All of it. Especially the dark of it, the way he ruminates on his life as though delivering his own eulogy. Undoubtedly he had a reason for choosing to record a Robert Johnson tune. Johnson was not only known as the King of the Delta blues, he is also infamous as the man who exchanged his soul in a deal with the devil to be able to master the blues.
The background noise—and much of the alleged music on this album is as much orchestrated noise as it is artful music, all the banging and clanging works a sort of twisted juju magic. I wouldn’t be surprise if they didn’t sample the sound of a jail cell door slamming shut.
The album is not even a full half hour long but then again how much pain can your ear stand before you turn it off. And yet on the other hand, this album is as fascinating as a horrible accident on the interstate. Wrecked cars, broken glass, skid marks across three lanes, paramedics lifting a body bag—you know you’ve got to look.
Or this could be the last hours of a favorite uncle who was quite a character in his day but now lays on his death bed beckoning for you to come closer so you can hear him articulate cautionary tales about how you should live better than he did. If you’ve been in one of those light-deprived rooms holding the emaciated hand of such a man, you understand exactly what I mean. If you’ve never been in that situation, I hope you never will be. I hope this recording is as close as you will ever come to falling under the terrible spell of ghost-throated exhortations.
But I still like this album. The utter honesty of it. The unremitting ‘don’t-cry-for-me’ tone of Gil’s defiant barking at death.
I did not expect Gil’s new album to sound this old. The production techniques may be some of the latest of hip hop and techno but this is really some old-ass, low-down blues shit.
On the other hand, I am not surprised by how dangerous this death letter sounds.
For those who do not know much of Gil’s work after he left Arista, I have included a fugitive recording of Gil in concert in London. I have no idea of exactly where or when this track escaped captivity. All I know is that I found it one night roaming around on the internet—I mean it was roaming with it’s tongue hanging out, I was phishing, hoping to run up on something. I was like a horny married man in a strange city, a hundred dollars cold cash warming his pocket, sitting at some bar, far away from his marriage bed, eager to sleep with someone, anyone. I know it sounds awful, but when we are looking for illicit music, stuff we can download for free or for next to nothing, unofficial recordings from which the artist will never receive a cent, when we eagerly download a bootleg, isn’t that what we’re doing, i.e. being unfaithful
to the artist?
Ironically, the bootleg song is a beautiful rendition of “Better Days Ahead.”
* * *
I don’t have to say much about the Sade. Sony’s publicity machine will make sure you hear it. The legions of fans and cult followers will strongly encourage you to buy it. Indeed, I have elsewhere posted two notices about the album myself and I never was that crazy about Sade.
To my ears where the clash of techno/hip hop production against Gil’s world-weary voice were like a stiff shot of some dark, aged whiskey, Sade’s album has a slightly bitter bite to it like a cold glass of fresh squeezed orange just that has sat out too long and is now a bit warm and there is more than a hint of acidic peal or rind grounded in with the pulp.
I’m sure deep fans will not mind and will swear that the album is a refreshing change from much of the soul-less, over production that passes for popular music nowadays. I’m not so sure. I think they tinkered a bit much with the ingredients. Everything sounds perfect, it’s just that they squeezed all the fun out. All of the music is freighted with seriousness.
But on the other hand, it’s been a long run, especially for a popular music group. The same four mates (Sade, Stuart Matthewman, Andrew Hale and Paul Denman) have been recording together since 1984. That’s a long time to keep a band together, a long time trying to preserve a fresh sound. A long, long time. So much happens over the years, so many things change: relationships, likes, dislikes, goals, objectives, not to mention musical directions and wanting to explore different avenues that your mates might not… well, you get the picture.
To my ear, Soldier Of Love
sounds more like it was engineered than like the band played it. But I could just be being nostalgic, just longing to hear what was
and not willing to open up to what is
, not willing to give Sade the necessary space to experiment and find new ways to express all the changes that have gone down over the last ten years or so.
Over time all things change and I suppose growing old is the most radical of all changes. Besides, I know that in music, there is nothing more boring than old musicians trying to sound like their young selves did ten, twenty and thirty years before.
This is not a bad album, in fact, a number of the cuts are really, really good music. I don’t want to give the wrong impression but I know that even if I do, Sade’s fans will make sure the album sells and sells well. I guess what I’m saying is that I had always assessed Sade as being lighter than what she has produced with Soldier Of Love
—there are some heavy songs on this album.
In its own way, this Soldier Of Love
album is just as stark as Gil’s oxymoronically titled I’m New Here
. There’s nothing new about Gil’s sound and for sure reclusive Sade lives far, far away from the battlefield.
But, like the man said, take it like you find it—if you like it, if you don’t, well then—leave like it is. In both cases these are very strong and very honest statements from artists who have already had their better days in terms of youth and maturity. Both Gil and Sade prove that there is still a lot of gold left in their artistic hills.
Make no mistake, these are potent and important tales told by aged travelers while descending the rough side of life’s mountains.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Early this morning
When you knocked upon my door
And I said, “Hello, Satan
“I believe it’s time to go”
As most of us know, Gil Scott-Heron didn’t write that. Robert Johnson (he of the infamous ‘deal with the devil’) did. Gil could’ve written it though, and if he did, it surely would’ve been autobiographical.
Legend has it that late one dark, dark night, deep down in the Mississippi Delta, Robert Johnson headed out to a deserted crossroad as an average, run-of-the-mill guitar player. Disappeared for a while. Next time anyone saw him (or more to the point, heard him) he’d been transformed, as if by magic, into the best damn guitar player anyone had ever heard. And he’d become the best songwriter anyone had ever heard too.
Some think of the Robert Johnson legend as strictly factual. Others think of it as a metaphor for the things we give away in our quest for fame, fortune and recognition. Either way, it’s both telling and appropriate that Gil Scott-Heron’s last album (and other than posthumous grave-robbing, rest assured that this album will be the last) leads off with one of Johnson’s masterpieces, “Me And The Devil Blues.”
I said earlier that Johnson’s record could read like autobiography for Gil, but there are significant differences too. First, the timing. By all accounts, Johnson made his deal with the devil early on in life. He recorded sporadically and infrequently and died at the ripe, young age of 27. I guess ol’ Satan didn’t much feel like waiting. If there’s a hell below, Gil is fairly certain that’s where he’s headed too, but he’s anything but young. (“Certain bad things that happen,” Gil says through a chortle, “Make you realize that you’ve been here a whole lot longer than a whole bunch of people thought you would.”) He turned sixty last year, but looks a good two decades older – which is appropriate, given that he’s lived a lot harder and longer than most sixty year olds ever have.
Here’s another difference for you: Johnson, by all accounts, made his deal and that was that. He gained immense power, paid an immense price, and that was all she (or ‘He’) wrote. Meanwhile, Gil made his deal with the bottle or the pipe or the needle or the dust or whatever the hell his choice is or was, a long, long time ago. And he’s been paying ever since. Johnson paid everything and all at once. Gil’s different. He went with the credit option. A real shitty, layaway-type of situation where no matter how much of himself he forks over, he’ll never be paid in full. “Ass, gas or cash,” they say in the hood, “Nobody rides for free.” Gil’s been paying lots all three for a long time now.
* * *
That gorgeous, baritone speaking voice is now a strangled choke. The masterful elocution long gone too. Gil was once capable of oratory so logical, so exquisite, so dynamic that it could only be described as Malcolm-esque. He was equally capable of dropping ghetto slang so flawless and convincing that listeners felt like street-corner eavesdroppers. And besides the speaking ability, there was the singing voice. Not silky like Marvin’s or expressive like Stevie’s, but a wonderful instrument all the same. An instrument capable of communicating equal parts jazz, blues and (most beautifully) soul. Even when he slid off-key, he did it with style. As both a performer and a communicator, he had it all. The slicing wit, the wry humor, the penetrating insight – it was all there. Plus, Gil cared. He talked about and sang about shit that mattered. Didn’t matter if it was love song, a blues song or resistance song, he wrote, sang it, spoke it, and played it beautifully. No matter the subject, you could always hear the love and the honesty.
The execution, frankly, is gone. These days, Gil’s voice sounds like the bastard child of Bob Dylan’s snarl and Melvin Van Peebles’ croak. If we’re honest about it, the incisiveness isn’t there either. Gil’s lyrics aren’t nearly as complex or logical as they once were. He’s simply no longer capable of the scalpel-like precision he once used to dissected the politics of the day. His new songs are made of images and suggestions – not facts or conclusions. The ideas are not always fully formed. The music surprises less – Gil is no longer apt to follow a fleet, Latin-tinged jazz excursion with a full-figured R&B masterwork.
All of that said, Gil’s new album is well, well worth your ten or fifteen bucks. You might thinking, “How?” I know I’ve just spent the last few paragraphs telling you Gil can’t sing anymore, he can’t write like he used to and, when he speaks, he’s barely even intelligible. And then I told you his music has turned all simple – no more elegant genre-hopping. We’re talking your basic, basic electro-blues. So what’s good about this album? Why do I suggest you spend your precious time listening to Gil (let alone your hard-earned cash)?
Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here is well worth your time and your money for the same reason any good art is worth it – because it communicates both truth and beauty. And in spades. Whether Gil is facing down the devil on the album opener, engaging in near-hopeless optimism for the title track, or trying to find his way back home on the spooky “New York Is Killing Me,”
he remains an artist (and make no mistake, despite all of his shortcomings, the man is still an artist) wholly committed to telling the truth and sharing the beautiful bits of his life. It just so happens that the beautiful bits are harder to locate these days and the truth is starker and harder than ever before.
The other reason this album is worth hearing—especially for those who are already familiar with Gil’s work—is because it is almost uniformly personal. You may have read or heard interviews during which an obviously stoned Gil attempted to talk around or make excuses for his wide variety of addictions. But give the man his due: when someone finally manages to get his cranky old behind into a recording studio, there’s no talking around anything. There’s never an excuse to be heard. In previous decades, before his habits became vices and his vices became death wishes, he held court on social ills, political shenanigans and historical inaccuracies. These days, rumor has it that Gil spends most of his time holed up in shitty apartments, staying high and hiding from the world. As such, the only subject about which he remains an expert is himself. And he’s as quotable as ever.
From "The Crutch"
: “The savage beast / That once so soothed his brain / Has reared its ugly head / And staked its claim”
From "New York Is Killing Me"
: “City living ain’t all it’s cracked up to be / Yeah, seems I need to go home and slow down in Jackson, Tennessee”
: “I always feel like running… / Not running for cover / Because if I knew where cover was, I’d stay there / And never have to run for it”
From "Where Did The Night Go"
: “Fuck a job and money / Because I spend it all on unlined paper / And can’t get past, ‘Dear, baby’ ”
From "I’m New Here"
: “No matter how far gone you’ve gone / You can always turn around”
I had a dream about Gil the other night. At least I think it was about Gil. I saw a white-haired, skinny old dude wearing a Kangol tipped to the side. He had a hipster’s walk and a musician’s hands – sinewy, long fingers, that sort of thing. The white-haired dude and the devil (don’t ask me how I knew it was the devil…he wasn’t red and he didn’t have a tail…I guess I just took it on faith) were walking down the road. It wasn’t nighttime and the road wasn’t deserted – it was just an ordinary afternoon on an ordinary street. So, like I said, the two of them were walking and then suddenly, there was only one of them. It was still the devil, but when he looked back at me, it was Gil too. Then I woke up. So either there was no Gil, or there was no devil. I don’t know which and I guess it doesn’t matter.
What I think the dream was telling me is there’s some devil in all of us. And there’s some good in all of us too. It’s all about what we do with what we have. Gil was put here to communicate with us, and for us. He was put here to sing to us, and for us. The way I hear it, he’s still doing his job. He’s writing cautionary tales for us, autobiographical in nature. Telling us, don’t be like me. Be wiser than me. Make better choices than I did. Be the best you you can be.
Gil’s down to his last days. He knows it, we know it. But he’s still doing what he was put here to do. Still singing, still sharing, still teaching. Still being Gil.
—Mtume ya Salaam
Gil Scott-Heron & Sade Mixtape Playlist
I'm New Here
- Gil Scott-Heron
01 “On Coming From A Broken Home (Part 1)”
02 “Your Soul And Mine”
03 “I'll Take Care Of You”
04 “Where Did The Night Go”
05 “I Was Guided (Interlude)”
06 “New York Is Killing Me”
08 “On Coming From A Broken Home (Part 2)”
09 “Better Days Ahead”
- Live in London bootleg - Gil Scott-Heron
Soldier Of Love
10 “Soldier Of Love”
11 “Morning Bird”
12 “The Safest Place”
13 “Long Hard Road”
14 “In Another Time”
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